The State Board of Education has endorsed the decision by Utah’s state trust lands agency to move ahead with a drilling lease in the Book Cliffs, even though a member of Congress and the governor’s office was asking them to hold off.
The State Board of Education decides how the revenue from Utah’s state school trust lands will be spent – last year that was more than 117-million dollars. That’s why it was so interested in the decision by the State Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA, to lease about 100-thousand acres in the Book Cliffs to Anadarko Petroleum.
When he found out about it, Governor Gary Herbert asked SITLA to hold off on finalizing the lease because the lease includes about 20-thousand acres of pristine wildlife habitat. At the state board meeting, Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell said SITLA’s process bypassed any kind of public involvement.
Bell told the board, “When we said, ‘Why don’t we stop and talk about this?’ the answer was ‘No, we can’t. We’re obligated’ ‘Well, how did you get obligated?’ ‘Well, our board voted.’ ‘When did your board vote?’ ‘It voted in our last meeting.’ ‘Did people know you were voting?’ ‘No.’”
Steve Ostler, who chairs the SITLA board, says the real estate transactions are negotiated in private, but the decision did have the required public notice before the meeting.
“It was on our agenda," Ostler told KUER. "We had a closed session, which we often do when we’re discussing complicated transactions. Then we moved into open session and we had a unanimous vote.”
Congressman Rob Bishop was also at the meeting to argue that issuing the lease now could get in the way of a comprehensive public land agreement he’s trying to work out that would include wilderness, energy development and the state’s trust lands.
Bishop told the board meeting, “The entire Book Cliffs area, if it was simply in isolation, I think we would all be saying, ‘Yeah, go ahead. This is no big deal.’ But if you take it out of isolation and you look at the entire thing we’re trying to do in all of eastern Utah, then it takes on a different connotation."
Members of the school board had their own questions about the transaction – like why the governor’s office has been in touch with the management of Anadarko Petroleum when the transaction is technically none of their business.
In the end, the school board voted unanimously to back the SITLA decision, saying their job is to support Utah’s school children, while acknowledging that their interests might also be served by protecting some of Utah’s most spectacular landscapes.